The Question of Character
The great irony in this curious chapter in American politics is that both campaigns have made telling the truth a central message and a core qualification in each man’s case to be President. In the run-up to the first of three debates in October, both campaigns charged that deceptions by the other guy would be a window into his essential character. “He’s trying to fool people,” Romney told reporters on his plane. “Facts will matter,” said Obama aide David Axelrod in a memo in response.
As a strategic matter, this makes sense; the best defense is often a strong offense. But when politicians speak of truth telling in such high-minded terms, they risk hypocrisy. In the final weeks of September, Obama seemed to acknowledge this risk by admitting in an interview with CBS News that his campaign sometimes goes “overboard” and that this is something that “happens in politics.” Romney has refused to waver. “We’ve been absolutely spot on,” he told CNN.
The October debates will offer one of the last chances to expose falsehoods. “What debates are really good at is dispensing a caricature of the other side,” explains Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped found FactCheck.org. “Except for debates, you don’t get a lot of two-sided information.”
But when the final book is written on this campaign, one-sided deception will still have played a central role. As it stands, the very notions of fact and truth are employed in American politics as much to distort as to reveal. And until the voting public demands something else, not just from the politicians they oppose but also from the ones they support, there is little reason to suspect that will change.
— With reporting by Alex Altman and Alex Rogers / Washington